JERUSALEM – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has backed down under pressure before, but rarely in such a spectacular fashion as he did on Tuesday when he reneged on a deal with the United Nations, just one day after he announced it, to resettle thousands of African asylum-seekers in Western countries.
Defending the abrupt reversal, he said he was responding to an outcry from members of his own conservative Likud Party as well as partners in his governing coalition who routinely refer to the migrants as "infiltrators" and want all of them expelled. But the capitulation dented Netanyahu's image as a master political player who has managed to outlast nearly any other Israeli leader.
"This sort of zigzagging is not at all unusual," said Gadi Wolfsfeld, a professor of political communications at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya near Tel Aviv. "But for someone considered such a political genius to make such a miscalculation, that's the surprising part of the story."
The episode is a reminder of how beholden Netanyahu is to hard-liners in his party and his government, constraining him domestically and diplomatically, whether in making concessions to the Palestinians or in fulfilling an agreement to create a new egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall.
"To sign an agreement and the next day to renege on it, that's awful," Wolfsfeld said. "I guess that means you can't sign anything with Israel."
The deal with the U.N. refugee agency might have brought Israel a bit of relief from international criticism of violence along the border with Gaza. Israeli forces killed at least 18 Palestinians during a mass demonstration there against the long-standing Israeli blockade of the territory and in support of Palestinian claims to return to homes in what is now Israel.
Netanyahu's latest troubles come at a time when he is already embroiled in multiple corruption scandals that could end up bringing him and his government down. But he still consistently ranks in polls as the most suitable candidate, by far, for the country's top job and is on his way to becoming Israel's longest-serving prime minister after David Ben-Gurion.
Netanyahu's Likud Party and his coalition partners have so far stuck by him despite the growing list of corruption allegations. But the migrant deal — which took most of his partners in the government by surprise — riled some of his closest allies.
As has often happened in the past, Netanyahu changed direction in the wake of harsh criticism from Naftali Bennett, the education minister and leader of the Jewish Home Party. While the far-right Jewish Home is in Netanyahu's coalition, it also competes with his Likud Party for votes
Bezalel Smotrich, a Jewish Home legislator, said in a radio interview Tuesday he would be willing to topple the government over the migrant issue. "We want the state of Israel to remain a Jewish state. And this means sticking to the right migration policy."
Tal Schneider, the political correspondent of the Israeli financial newspaper Globes, said of Netanyahu's reversal: "It shows weakness."
Netanyahu said he had made the deal with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees because it seemed the only way to reduce the population of African migrants in Israel, who number at least 35,000. The migrants are mostly Eritreans and Sudanese who surreptitiously crossed the border from Egypt before it was sealed in 2012.